61: Scruffy’s Story

61: Scruffy’s Story

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog

Scruffy’s Story

Maybe part of loving is learning to let go.

~From the television show The Wonder Years

“It’s not my dog!” My husband threw up his hands in exasperation and disappeared down the hall.

“It’s not my dog, either,” I muttered, but I was the one who let the tangled mass of muddy fur into the house. The ungrateful newcomer had just marked his territory by baptizing my living room drapes.

It all started on the day before Thanksgiving when I pulled my Ford Tempo into our driveway after a challenging day of teaching. As I retrieved my book bag from the backseat, I had the uneasy feeling I was being watched. Cautiously I turned and stared into the piercing brown eyes of the most pitiful dog I had ever seen. His shaggy coat was covered with fresh mud and his head was scabbed with dried blood. His road-weary, gut-hungry, giving-up-on-life appearance pulled at my heart strings.

“Where did that dog come from?” I closed the front door behind me.

“Just leave him alone and he’ll go home.” Jim’s pastor’s heart did not extend to four-legged strays. “And whatever you do, don’t feed him.”

Our daughter’s pre-adolescent nose pressed tightly against the living room window as she kept tabs on the long-haired stranger in the driveway. Her bone conduction hearing aid screeched against the glass. Bethany was born with bilateral aural atresia—no ear canals, no ear drums, and malformed middle ear bones. She was entering those years when it is vitally important to be just like everyone else, but she wasn’t. And she wanted a dog of her very own.

Morning light revealed the bedraggled dog—still outside under the car. He looked weaker and hungrier... and sadder—if that was even possible.

I spent the morning in the kitchen—roasting, basting, mixing, and baking the traditional Thanksgiving dishes required for our family celebration, which included our son who was home from college. Our family joined hands around the table. Each person managed to voice an expression of gratitude without mentioning the hungry dog in the driveway. After the blessing and a finger-squeezing amen, the meal I spent hours preparing disappeared... and so did Bethany. She was back at the window, nose flattened and fingers splayed. I washed the Thanksgiving dishes and she watched her Thanksgiving dog.

Jim was deep into his holiday nap when I tiptoed into the laundry room to gather a couple of plastic bowls and a partial bag of the dog kibble that we kept around for our son’s dog when he visited. Flashing a “shhhh” sign toward Bethany, I slipped out the front door to finish serving Thanksgiving dinner. Intense brown eyes followed my every move from the safety zone beneath Jim’s car. I placed the bowls brimming with food and water strategically by the window on the front porch and I crept back inside. No sooner had I closed the door than a mass of fur streaked toward the window and began gobbling and gulping. The dog retreated to the driveway while I dished up second helpings; then he returned to the porch to dine more slowly. That was enough for Bethany. She was out the door, and started hugging the neck of the wayward pooch. Open door translated into open invitation and the tangled-coated stranger darted into the house. The ensuing commotion meant naptime was over. My husband emerged from the family room just in time to witness the wet curtain crisis.

The dog was in the house. That was nine-tenths of the battle as far as Bethany was concerned. She christened him Scruffy because of his rough appearance, but after rigorous bathing and brushing, his long black and white coat was quite presentable. I fixed a bed for him in the family room, but he soon abandoned it for Bethany’s bed.

Who would dump such a pretty dog? He had no collar and no microchip, so we advertised in the newspaper, posted “found dog” signs, and contacted local animal shelters. No one seemed to be looking for a small black and white dog.

Jim and I had our reservations about a street dog of unknown origin taking up residence in our daughter’s room. We promised Bethany a new puppy in the spring—one she could raise herself—but she had already fallen in love with the dog in the driveway. The dog that wasn’t perfect in every way. The dog that needed her as much as she needed him.

Scruffy became Bethany’s constant companion. She dressed him in doll clothes. She tried her bone conduction hearing aid on his head. Bethany wanted to be a doctor, so Scruffy became her first living patient. She examined him with her plastic medical kit—taking his blood pressure, checking his heart, peering into the ear canals she didn’t have. She matted his black and white coat with tears of frustration when classmates called her “robot-head” because of her hearing aid, or when she missed an activity because she didn’t hear the invitation, or when she was just plain adolescent angry at her parents. Scruffy was privy to the secrets of her heart too sacred to be written in a diary, and she held him close whenever she needed comfort.

One night, about three months after Scruffy’s arrival, I was perched on the edge of Bethany’s bed for her bedtime ritual and a final “I love you,” when the dog growled at her. I banished him from the bedroom in spite of Bethany’s tears. The next night, he growled again. I was again ready to evict him when Bethany wailed, “Stop Mama. He’s telling me his ‘rar-rar’s.’” Sure enough, Scruffy was talking to her in a “rar-rar-rah” cadence that sounded eerily like “I love you.” After that, he told her so every night at bedtime.

Through the years Scruffy served as Bethany’s unofficial, self-trained hearing-ear dog. She awakened every morning to his gentle kisses. He alerted her when the telephone rang or the doorbell sounded or the tornado siren wailed. He sat unflinching in the window each afternoon, waiting for the school bus. He lay at her feet as she did her homework and sat beside her as she read her favorite books.

Years passed. Bethany grew taller and Scruffy’s muzzle grew grayer. The school bus gave way to the first car, and soon it was time for college. What a doleful day it was for the little black and white dog when “his girl” moved into the college dorm. New friends helped her now, but there was a tail-wagging, tongue-slurping reunion each time she came home.

Medical school was next and homecomings were fewer and fewer. Scruffy slept more and more, and I tried to keep him as comfortable as possible. One sad day his breathing became so labored I took him to the veterinarian. Prescribed pills had little effect, so I called Bethany to come home. Our soon-to-be-doctor whisked her childhood companion into the car. Jim drove toward the animal hospital while I prayed for both daughter and dog. As his mistress gently held him, tears streaming from her eyes, Scruffy stopped breathing. Unable to accept the inevitable, she gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and he came back to her. At the animal hospital, the vet placed Scruffy’s weary head in an oxygen cone, but we all knew it was time to say goodbye. Jim and I took our turns, then stepped aside while Bethany told her childhood companion farewell. Scruffy lifted his head slightly and gave his girl one last “rar-rar-rah.”

~Beverly A. Porter

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